Combat in Context
Der Krieg is nichts anderes als die Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln. “War,” in other words, “is nothing other than the continuation of politics/policy by other means.” Carl von Clausewitz’s pithy observation has entered our historical canon as a truism: An analytic look at the wars of the past two centuries—or the past two millennia, for that matter— suggests he was accurate as a historian. A look at more recent conflicts suggests Clausewitz was also prescient about modern conventional warfare, as well as what has come to be called “unconventional warfare.”
It remains impossible to understand why a war has broken out or how it progresses militarily without understanding the political context in which such conflict unfolds. Consider the events that led to the outbreak of hostilities in the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. They were preceded, variously, by inflexible ideological clashes, diplomatic miscues (and outright debacles), public opinion conflicts, leadership crises, cultural collisions and divisive legislation—from the 1820 Missouri Compromise on the admission of slave and free states, which Thomas Jefferson characterized as “a firebell in the night,” to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Lyndon Johnson’s use of military force in Southeast Asia, which dissenting Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon characterized as “a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution.”
It is possible and valuable to understand battles and campaigns exclusively in terms of military criteria: strategy, tactics, terrain, leadership, logistics, training, the warfighting capabilities of soldiers on all sides. But even on the battlefield, political factors can influence the outcome, as when an inept general who’d achieved command not through competence but through political favoritism, lost a key battle—and many American wars have known such losses. Politics, as Clausewitz understood it, may not be the determinative factor in war, but neither can it be ignored in military history.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.